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James Hubbard Jr. and the Story of "The Brain"
February 25, 2014


You can't grow up with a nickname like "The Brain" without having something to live up to.

But living — just the sheer act of day-to-day survival — isn't always easy when it means being an African-American child in one of the most racially segregated small cities in the South. And living can't be called a breeze when you trade a segregated Southern city for one of the toughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia. And living certainly can't be called a piece of cake when you leave that tough Philly neighborhood only to find yourself wandering the mean streets of Baltimore.

So you see, in order to live up to anything, "The Brain" was going to have to do some serious work — and that's exactly what "The Brain" did.

And just who is "The Brain?" It's James Hubbard Jr., the Director for the Center of Adaptive Aerospace Vehicle Technology at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA). Hubbard shared his life story Feb. 19 during a Profiles in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) talk at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Though several of his colleagues showed up to hear the talk, Hubbard directed most of what he said to a group of 9th-grade Engineering Explorations students from the Heritage High School Governor's STEM Academy, telling them, "My message is for you."

Hubbard is from Danville, Va., and when he was growing up there, strict segregation between blacks and whites was still the rule.

"I was born into that," he said. "And I was taught that. And I grew up with that."

Hubbard's mother — who gave him the nickname "The Brain" — decided to get involved in the Civil Rights movement in the '60s. It was a decision that landed her in jail for a time.

While she served out her jail sentence, Hubbard's father moved to Philadelphia in the hopes of escaping the violent clashes that were becoming a regular part of what was supposed to be a peaceful movement. He summoned his son to join him. They lived at corner of 19th and Thompson streets.

"Gang warfare has been in Philadelphia for over 50 years, and so when I lived there, there was gang warfare," he said. "19th and Thompson: to this day the cops won't even go there."

Things didn't get much better when Hubbard's mother got out of jail. She moved her family to Baltimore, where Hubbard, "a round peg in a square hole," found himself getting in lots of fights.

In an effort to extract her son from the violence, Hubbard's mother enrolled him in an engineering prep school. The only black student there, Hubbard has vivid memories of being egged by his classmates — over and over again. He tolerated it at first, not wanting to disappoint his mother. But after a while it became too much. Hubbard put his fists to work.

"For the remainder of my time in that school, I fought," he said.

So his mother went back to the drawing board. This time, she sent "The Brain" to sign up for the Sea Scouts, part of the Boy Scouts of America. In a mix up, though, he ended up signing up for the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps.

According to Hubbard, for the next few years he trained in every major military facility in the country. But he also continued his schoolwork, ultimately securing a place at Baltimore's prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he graduated with what he reckons was a C average.

Hubbard's trajectory continued to be riddled with potholes, but whether he realized it or not, the path his mother had helped carve out for him was finally leading to bigger and better things.

After high school he served a stint in the Merchant Marine and earned his Marine Engineers License. Then he went to Morgan State College, where he spent two years majoring in physics. Then the call came in: MIT was interested in him. Hubbard hadn't even heard of MIT, but at the urging of his friends, he went to Boston.

"You talk about another planet — above average was average. Everybody's a nerd. People work 24," he hesitates for a second, "they actually work 25/8."

Once again, Hubbard felt out of his element. His grades were low. He didn't socialize. After a few weeks, some of his friends, "The Wolf Pack," came up for a visit. They went on a rampage. There were fights. And drinking. It was enough to catch the attention of Hubbard's department head.

The meeting between Hubbard and his department head ended up being a turning point.

"We decided to work together," he said.

Hubbard threw himself into his studies and formed a group called Black ME, for black mechanical engineers.

"I went from the lowest grade in the class," he said, "to getting my bachelor's degree in three years. I got my master's degree in two years. I got my PhD from MIT in two years."

"The Brain" was finally living up to his nickname. He taught at MIT for a while, then got plucked up to work at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory as their chief of adaptive sensors. He got married and had three sons. He worked in the Photonics Center at Boston University, helping to develop practical uses for light. He tried his hand in the world of private industry, starting up a couple of businesses. And then he landed a professorship at the University of Maryland, which named him the Langley Professor at the NIA.

There, Hubbard is working with other engineers and students to build a research program in smart adaptive aerospace vehicles that, like birds, can flap their wings and instantly respond to sudden changes in the environment.

And that fighting instinct he learned as a young man? Hubbard now channels that into his work, and encourages those around him to do so as well. It's the kind of mentality that's helped to earn him a slew of patents and a Black Engineer of the Year President's Award.

It's also the kind of mentality that's earned him a fan club. Not too long ago, a 5th-grade class from an engineering magnet school in Danville came to Hampton to visit Hubbard and see his work.

"Imagine that," he said. "They think I'm something special. I'm just from Danville, too."

It was a special moment in a special life — a life that hasn't always been easy, a life that could've taken a much darker turn.

But that was never the plan for "The Brain." Nope, "The Brain" had something to live up to. And he did, mostly through his own willpower, but also through the help and encouragement he received from others along the way. That's the same kind of help and encouragement he himself hoped to pass along to the engineering students from Heritage High.

In closing his talk, he paraphrased President John F. Kennedy.

"To whom much is given," he said to the students, "much is expected."

February is Black History Month.

Joe Atkinson
NASA Langley Research Center

James Hubbard Jr.
James Hubbard Jr., Director for the Center of Adaptive Aerospace Vehicle Technology at the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), shared his life story Feb. 19 during a Profiles in STEM lecture at NASA Langley.
Image Credit: 
NASA/David C. Bowman
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Page Last Updated: February 26th, 2014
Page Editor: Joe Atkinson